Interview with a Bookstore: Greenlight Books
In Brooklyn, where Cesar Aira got to meet Cecil Taylor
Both separately, then together, Jessica Stockton Bagnulo and Rebecca Fitting had a dream to open a bookstore. They had spent a combined 26 years working in bookstores and in publishing before becoming business partners; neither were well-suited to office life, and both loved working in bookstores. They knew full-well that running a store was different than working in a store, but it didn’t make them want to do it any less. Discovering a shared and kindred interest, they partnered to create Greenlight.
In June of 2009, construction began at 686 Fulton Street, aided by the community of neighbors, book industry colleagues, friends and family. With overwhelming generosity, people came daily to help the artisans, contractors and bookstore staff to clean, scrape, paint, stain shelves, and check in and sort books. With their help, Greenlight Bookstore was ready for business by October. Five years on, Greenlight has become an important feature in the Fort Greene, Brooklyn community.
What’s your favorite section in the store?
Rebecca (co-owner): Jarrod likes the independent presses table. Hannah likes the children’s section. Annie likes recommending books from the middle grade section. Alexis likes all the art books. Jessica (co-owner) likes both the adult and kids’ graphic novel sections. Matt likes the fiction section. Julian the graphic novels. Jess the photography and fiction sections. Rebecca (co-owner) the staff picks section. Grace’s the graphic novel section. Angel, the essay and poetry. Geo, the travel and music sections.
If you had infinite space what would you add?
Rebecca: We really like displaying chapbooks and books from independent presses. These books are some of our favorites and there are so many that we would like to face out. We would also create a space for writers, for workshop type meetings or craft talks. Most of our staff are writers and reach out to a wide range of different genres. They write as graphic novelists, screenwriters, poets, fiction, non-fiction and more.
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
Jarrod (Manager) and Jess (Bookseller): We serve Ft. Greene, Brooklyn really well. Our customers keep coming back because Greenlight is a welcoming place and our booksellers are knowledgeable and try to figure out what a person is interested in reading and then offering a book they’ve either read or know is making the rounds on the must-read lists. Our staff picks sell fast and there are customers who come in looking for one bookseller to see what they are reading. We’re also able to work with all sorts of authors and publishers from the biggest you can imagine to authors who are sewing the binding of their own books. It’s just what we like and we can help those readers who like all these different publishers as well.
Who’s your favorite regular?
Jarrod and Jess: We have some favorite dogs. There’s Pumpkin who knows how to open the treat container and Jules who won’t walk past the bookstore without coming in to say hello. They’re actually friends.
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
Jarrod and Jess: We have celebrations. Our events and parties are so much fun. The store is packed and everyone is feeling good. Sometimes visitors want to stay all night and ask questions of the authors. One of our favorite memories is when Cesar Aira did his first event in the U.S for The Musical Brain. The store was filling up and Cecil Taylor, who lives in the neighborhood, walked in and sat down. The last story in the book is called “Cecil Taylor.” That night Cesar Aira got to meet Cecil Taylor and read the story to the audience. It was amazing.
What’s your best memory about visiting a bookstore as a child?
Jarrod and Jess: Realizing that there was an infinite amount of knowledge out there and that whatever we wanted to discover and learn, it could be at our fingertips.
If you weren’t running/working at a bookstore what would you be doing?
Jarrod and Jess: Trying to get a job at Greenlight.
What’s been the biggest surprise about running a bookstore?
Jarrod and Jess: The proundness of it all. When you’re a bookseller you’re a handseller, one book at a time. Both Jessica and I experienced that working in bookstores, which is part of what made us want to take it further. When you’re a bookstore, you’re a taste-maker, which is the same thing as being a handseller, but on a bigger scale. The events you schedule, the books you feature, the people you hire—with hope, they all affect your customers in ways you intend, and occasionally in ways you didn’t intend.
SLIDESHOW: Greenlight Books Staff Recommendations